The great composers of the seventh art: Justin Hurwitz, the multi-award-winning little genius

Cinema and Documentary

The resident composer of Damien Chazelle is already the winner of two Oscars and three Golden Globes at only 37 years old. A feat for this Harvard alumnus, whose journey and work we tell you about in our summer series on these men in the shadows, magnificent third roles in an art that is played out in images as well as in music. (2/7).

In our first episode on those who do not make false notes in the cinema, we reminded you of the immense duo formed by Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. Perhaps they started a tradition (we also think of Spielberg and John Williams), because a much younger duo is also in the process of entering legend. Damien Chazelle has become in no time one of the most famous directors in all of Hollywood, and this rise would not exist without the help of his great friend Justin Hurwitz, who signs absolutely all the soundtracks for his films.

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Their most acclaimed feature film is none other than the musical La La Land, who won six Oscars in 2017, including those for best music and best original song (“City of Stars”) in the hands of the native of California. To make a film sung in Hollywood in the 21st century, a project not necessarily easy to sell to the industry, but a challenge masterfully taken up by the composer. He skillfully manages to mix popular American song, contemporary pop and jazzy atmosphere to make this soundtrack an instant classic.


Fed up with Chopin, Beethoven, Bach and Schubert when he was doing his scales, then a teenager at the Milwaukee Conservatory, Hurwitz began playing the piano at the age of six before creating his first compositions four years later. His audacity and genius were detected very early on by his professors, and he ended up returning to the prestigious Harvard in 2003. There he met his future friend Chazelle, with whom he formed the pop group Chester French outside of class. The two will never separate again.

Before the success of the Oscars, the two virtuosos had shocked everyone in 2014 with a powerful film where music plays the leading roles, whiplash. A pure ode to jazz in which Miles Teller and JK Simmons offer their best scores, and which dissects the art of drumming with a bang. The Sundance and Deauville festivals will award it best film, and the critics will salute a superb work of craftsmanship. Hurwitz seems to recite his scales there and serves Chazelle on a platter with compositions that refresh the genre (see the incredible interpretation of “Caravan” below).

The learning of music is magnified there by the director’s camera, which practically plays with the notes of its composer. We see the enormous work carried out between the two, who work constantly hand in hand. In numerous cross interviews, the two friends have revealed that they collaborate on the project on a daily basis, detailing their creative process to each other at every moment. A way of proceeding that is palpable throughout the film, as jazz is both atmosphere and central character.

rebel with La La Land, where Hurwitz is not “just” the resident composer and much more than a cog. Throughout the project, the sound designer is present on the film set, a true one-man orchestra of a superb choral film (see the video that details this aspect of the shooting below). ” The most difficult thing was to find the emotional balance between joy and melancholy “, noted Hurwitz about his work on the project, initiated already in 2011.

Nothing is indeed left to chance and each note, each instrument holds its reason to exist. The flutes flirt and throb waiting for a first kiss. The xylophones chime quietly behind the memory of a sweet moment. And a single piano note, performed on camera by Hurwitz himself, symbolizes a devastating reality. All served by twirling choreography, a super polished photo and an Emma Stone – Ryan Gosling duet at the top of his game. A splendid work where classic romanticism, energetic jazz and pop accents are combined wonderfully. We will obviously remember this crazy opening scene which holds you as much by the image as the music.

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Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz will be back, after the very good first-man (2019), next December with babylon, a film that focuses on the late 1920s in Hollywood, when silent cinema was about to give way to talkies. We’re willing to bet that music will still play a decisive role, served by a new starry duo: Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, just that. The Academy of Oscars has already been notified.

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The great composers of the seventh art: Justin Hurwitz, the multi-award-winning little genius